Legendary figure of Indian cinema in sixty years of career, Soumitra Chatterjee died in Calcutta following complications linked to Covid-19 on Sunday. He was 85 years old. Chatterjee had been revealed by Satyajit Ray, who spun him in the World of Apu (1959), the last part of his “Apu Trilogy” which saw a young Bengali boy grow up over the films, long before Antoine Doinel at Truffaut. Chatterjee played Apu as an adult, a country son who became an aspiring city writer, immediately fixing his future image as an urban, intellectual, kind and sensitive character on the screen. A hero who thinks, to the point of writing a fictional biography of his character of Apu to better embody him.
A theater actor previously from school, he will say that he was only confident in his cinematic potential at the end of his first successful take in the World of Apu. With Ray, he will shoot fourteen films, exploding his cinégénie in very diverse roles, as the husband of a bride convinced that she is a reincarnation of the goddess Kali in the goddess (1960), as a scalded taxi driver in Abhijan (1962), as a doctor in the face of a famine in Distant thunders (1973) or in Bengali Sherlock Holmes in Sonar Kella (1974). American critic Pauline Kael called Chatterjee a “Troop of actors all alone”.
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Apart from Ray, he remained active on the boards (notably playing the King Lear), published poems and a literary magazine, and acted on television and other filmmakers like Tapan Sinha (swashbuckling villain in Jhinder bondi in 1961) or Mrinal Sen (in an ambitious framework in Akash kusum in 1965), ultimately accumulating some 300 titles in his filmography.
He will stay well away from Bollywood and its lights, and very rarely spawn with the West – an appearance alongside Hugh Grant and John Hurt in Bengali Night (1988). His stature earned him the appointment of an Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters in 1999 and Padma Bhushan in 2004, the third highest civilian honor conferred by the Indian government. During his hospitalization before his death, he continued to write notes as long as he could, in view of a role he promised himself to play again.